All This Useless Beauty
Roosevelt Cabin on our main campus is a log cabin, to be sure, but a log cabin with a very noticeable difference—its windows. The original windows are large for the cabin, and on the upper level alongside two smaller square windows is a half-trapezoid (or sawed-off right triangle) window. http://berry.edu/vtour/detail_main.asp?lid=43#/vtour/images/roosevelt_cabin/5.jpg
Why the unusual windows (whatever their proper names)? The story is that Martha Berry wanted the students who saw the cabin to realize that log cabins could be log cabins and yet be made better, that is, more beautiful. That even the most humble dwelling can be adorned and is worthy of adornment. More than function matters. Beauty matters, too. And so you can add windows to let in more light, windows you don’t really need, windows whose shape and style catches the eye. Windows you could live without but without which your life would be smaller and poorer. Useless beauty, because we are made for beauty.
One of the joys of being at Berry is the wealth of cultural events on offer. (I am not here referring to the plethora of movie showings.) Our music faculty, in addition to their own recitals and the performances of the ensembles they direct, arrange an superb concert series of visiting performers. The same is true of our theatre and art programs. Or, take poetry. As a member of the Georgia Poetry Circuit, we have visiting poets on campus for a reading two or three times a semester. The audiences for these readings are almost entirely students, listening to an older man or woman reading poetry and talking about their craft or the context of their poems. Sometimes I don’t know what to make of the poetry. It is pleasant and enjoyable, but is it good? Often, I wish I were surer. And sometimes I find the poet more than a little self-indulgent in his performance (not unlike me in my classroom, I suspect). Nevertheless, what a splendid thing to say to students, “It is worth your time to make some space in your life to engage this beauty, and to hear an expert in a craft perform and talk about his or her craft.” It may be a poet or a cellist or a potter—someone committed to creating and offering to others something of beauty and excellence, though of little real utility. It is worth the student’s while to stop and attend to this excellence, to this beauty, even though there is nothing he or she can do with it. “Enjoy this window,” we say, “your life will be better for it.” All this beauty, this useless beauty.
Of the arguments for the benefits of a liberal arts education many, if not most, appeal to the usefulness of a liberal arts education, a usefulness perhaps not at first apparent. For example, it is reasonable to think that society needs nimble thinkers, individuals who can deftly connect the unconnected and negotiate difficult and disparate straits. A liberal arts education is an education that encourages and develops in students those intellectual dispositions and skills, that prepares them for meeting and thinking through what is new and different to them. I find those arguments, well, useful. But an equally good argument of an education in the liberal arts is that not everything of value is useful, that there are things that matter, that are important, and not because of the use to which they can be put. An education in the liberal arts is, at least in part, an education in such things. “Here is something you should know, though there is not much you can do with this piece of knowledge.” “Here is something you should pay attention to because of its beauty.” “Here is how nature works.” “Here is what these people did.” “Here is what Messiaen or Turner or Kinnell created.” All this beauty, this useless beauty.
With several warm sunny days in a row now, spring is teasing us. A cup of joe outside in the Kilpatrick Commons, the fountain bubbling over stones—not a bad use of one’s time on a day like this. Not bad at all.